Hunting grizzlies

This Aug. 2, 2012, photo provided by Wolves of the Rockies shows a grizzly near the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park.

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State and federal officials spent Tuesday sparring over details in the plan for managing grizzly bears should the federal government succeed in its bid to lift Endangered Species Act protections for the Yellowstone population. And, after eight hours of talks, it seemed there was a lot of work left to do.

In the meeting of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee’s Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee, officials from federal, state, county and tribal government agencies talked through potential edits to the conservation strategy for the Yellowstone ecosystem’s grizzly bear population.

The most controversial issues pitted top officials from Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park against nearly everyone else around the table. Among other things, Yellowstone superintendent Dan Wenk raised concerns about the future of population calculations, how state agencies determine the number of bears available for hunting, and where exactly those hunts would take place, all in the interest of keeping bears around for the growing number of visitors to the parks.

“Visitors have a high interest in seeing a grizzly bear in their natural environment,” Wenk said. He added that Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park and the John D. Rockerfeller Jr. Memorial Parkway make up “one of the best areas to see grizzlies in the wild.”

Last March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed lifting Endangered Species Act protections for the Yellowstone grizzly bear. For the past few months, officials have been identifying changes they want to see in the USFWS’ conservation strategy before the delisting becomes final. Some edits were finalized on Tuesday, but plenty were left hanging in the balance, not to mention changes that might result from the peer reviewers who analyzed the plan and the thousands of public comments.

The committee plans to finish editing the document by October, when they are scheduled to meet again. The plan is to sign off on the document for good in November, so the USFWS can roll on with its plans to delist the bear.

The bear has been listed as threatened since 1975, when it was estimated there were fewer than 150 bears in the region. It’s estimated there are now more than 700 bears there, though some estimates put the number near 1,000. USFWS argues that means the bears are recovered.

Protections were removed briefly in 2007, but a lawsuit from environmental groups over the impacts of climate change on food sources for the bears landed them back on the list in 2009.

Delisting would shift management responsibilities to the states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, opening the door for hunting to take place. The three states have all unveiled plans for hunting regulations in the post-delisting rule.

The delisting rule and conservation strategy shoot for a population of about 674 bears within a 19,279-square-mile area called the demographic monitoring area. At that level, some killing of bears would be allowed. If the population dipped below 600, then no discretionary kills would be allowed.

The amount of discretionary kills that could be allowed each year would be decided at a meeting of the three state wildlife agencies, with park officials invited to attend. Wyoming stands to get the largest share of the mortality, followed by Montana and then Idaho.

Wenk said that if hunting is to happen, he wants it to focus on places where human conflict with grizzly bears is greatest and not on the border of Yellowstone. He said he would like a change in the document that could “give assurance that we’re concentrating the mortality in areas where there is conflict.”

Wyoming Game and Fish’s chief game warden Brian Nesvik said that the decision on exactly where would likely be up to state fish and game commissions, and that focusing on conflict would likely be a component of that.

“It’s in the states’ interest to have bears that are going to be in conflict to be those that are part of discretionary mortality,” Nesvik said.

Wenk also said that the calculation for the number of bears available for hunting or management kills worries him. The mortality limit is based on a population estimate within the entire demographic monitoring area, of which Yellowstone and Grand Teton — where no hunting can happen — make up about 21 percent.

“So 100 percent of the (hunting of grizzlies) will be taking place on 80 percent of the DMA,” Wenk said. “The question is, is that an appropriate way to look at it?”

Wenk argued that doing so could affect the potential for the Yellowstone bears to connect with the population that lives in the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem, a goal bear advocates say is important for the long-term conservation of the grizzly bear.

Nesvik said the bears in the population are mobile, and that hunting all of the available ones outside of the park shouldn’t be a problem.

“There’s not a biological impact,” Nesvik said.

Nesvik also said that, with the myriad issues inside the more than 100-page-long conservation strategy, it’s not realistic to think that all of the parties will love every word — himself and the other state agencies included.

“There will be components of the strategy where we won’t have 100 percent agreement but we will still have agreement on a conservation strategy,” Nesvik said.

The volume of work left to go and the tone of the meeting led some public commenters at the meeting to wonder whether the officials will actually have the document finished by October.

“Today the discussion has just seemed very rushed and very politically driven,” said Bonnie Rice of the Sierra Club. “This species is too important ... to rush this process.”

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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